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Does Fine Art have a problem with disability?

Updated: Jan 5

This is a personal story from a disabled artist who has experienced Ableism and Disability Discrimination within the Fine Art world and asks, does the Fine Art world have a problem with disability?

Photo by Nicola Nuttall

Shattered dreams

I was one of those children that knew precisely what job they wanted to do when they "grew up". I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to work in a studio all day and emerge for a coffee, my clothes covered in paint and my hands permanently stained with ink. I wanted people to look at me and think, "now that is an artist".

During my childhood, my teachers encouraged my creativity immensely. I wrote poems, played several instruments, and drew all the time. I was even fortunate enough to experience what is like to play in front of a larger crowd at the Birmingham Symphony Hall.

But there was something missed. No English teachers saw I didn't understand phonetics. No one realised I couldn't do the instant mathematics required to play from notation. There was no acknowledgement that I preferred to draw because pictures are how my brain thinks, and words were a foreign concept to me.

I was growing up disabled - but undiagnosed and without support. I learnt ways to try and cover up my difficulties through problem-solving, pattern spotting and staying up late. I would often be up until 4 am to write my school work, whilst my counterparts would have only spent an hour on the same quality. My parents didn't see how much I struggled, nor realise why I barely spoke.

I managed to cover my difficulties enough to get a spot at a university. In the 00s, if you wanted to get onto an Arts Degree, you had to complete a foundation year. I was able to skip this year and go straight into the degree. It was only when I reached this level of education that I realised my pretending wasn't going to be enough to keep up with my peers, so I left university. I left all my dreams behind. I was told I could never be an artist without an art degree.

I tried many jobs after university, never fitting in, and struggled to keep up with communication within the office and with the clients. The screens and lightbulbs were a constantly agonising pain which seemed only to make it harder for me to keep up the act that I was "just like everyone else" - that I didn't have any difficulties with language processing.

Eventually, after many years of talking to various people in the NHS, someone suggested I could be Autistic. From there, I was referred for diagnosis and have since received it. I have a Speech and Language Therapist so we could identify what parts of language and communication I do not get, and in 2021 I was also diagnosed Dyslexic (with Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia).

A new hope

Armed with all this new information about myself and realising I am just disabled, I thought I would give university another go in 2022. By this point, I had already been creating art again daily for about two years. It brought me great joy to be back in touch with my dreams. I knew I still wanted to be a professional artist. I knew one day I would achieve it! I thought university would give me better working practice and connections to the Fine Art world. How wrong could I be?

I knew going to university would be difficult merely because of my sensory processing difficulties. I knew it would not be quiet at times, and I knew it would be bright. After all, artists' studios are usually bright for working in, and students will want to socialise, sometimes in very echoey rooms.

I went in ready. Sunglasses, check. Earbuds, check. Sunflower lanyard, check. Fidget toys, check. Oversized fluffy jacket with a huge hood to block out sunlight, check.

Immediately I have exposed to LED lighting, very blue-lit screens, echoing rooms, busy canteens, unguided social situations, constantly shifting timetables and a lack of explicit instruction. By day four, I was feeling overwhelmed. I'd been trying to expose myself to these things that are confusing or cause pain daily, trying to hold in how much it hurt. I felt lost and like I perhaps shouldn't be there. The only thing that kept me going was the artwork I was producing in the art studio.

I was happy with what I was producing. It felt exciting! It was expressive, confident work I hadn't produced at home. It was almost like I was using the artwork to try and open myself up more to the whole "experience of the university".

I thought if I spoke to the tutors and Learning Support, I could explain my needs and why I'd instead get in, do artwork, and go home again. The expectation to socialise in an unstructured way was too much on top of all the sensory pain and trying to keep up with the verbal-only instructions provided by the tutors.

Some of the tutors responded to this and were very supportive. They communicated with me and asked me what did and didn't work for me. They would give me breaks and not draw attention to the fact that I needed to be outside with nature. No eyebrows were raised at me putting earplugs in or whipping out my dark sunglasses when they turned on the presentation screen. It felt like perhaps I could do this, and I did belong here after all. If these tutors can be adaptive to my needs as a disabled person, then perhaps others in the Fine Art world can too. Perhaps these tutors can put me in touch with other disability-friendly curators. Together, we could work towards one of my goals of making artistic spaces for visitors more accessible to a broader range of disabilities.

Oi! Disabled people want to access Fine Art too!

Often when I am visiting art spaces, there are some efforts to meet disabled people's needs. There are disabled toilets, lifts and hearing loops. Occasionally if you are lucky, there will be signage that includes Braille, but this is usually where the accessibility attempts end.

There are often very few efforts to eliminate uneven floors. There are rarely any bookable quieter visiting times. The adjoining cafes are often too loud with awful acoustics, which makes them an uninviting space to relax. In every art space, there is no consideration of light sensitivity and the artists themselves often use blue lights in art installations or sculptures.

A recent example of these issues can be summed up in my visit to Oxford Modern Art to experience Maria Abramović's Gates and Portals in September 2022. As soon as you enter Oxford Modern Art, there is a distinct lack of clear signage. You are expected to "just know" where you need to go. It took a lot of asking staff to figure out where things were in this small building and how to enter the art exhibit.

When you get to the reception desk for the art exhibit, you have to battle the bouncing noises of a coffee machine behind you. The sound ricochets off the concrete walls and slaps you in the face every few seconds - excruciating and distracting, I can tell you. The staff do not heed your Sunflower Lanyard, clearly saying, "I am Autistic", and proceed to verbally give you a massive list of instructions and rules for the art exhibit. I still, to this day, have no idea what they said.

You then have to go up a set of brightly lit stairs (yes, no lift takes you to the start of the art exhibit. You can only use a lift to access the end of the exhibit, which ruins the artist's journey she wants audiences to experience) that make you feel dizzy and sick.

The art invigilators were lovely and offered different options for people with sensory processing difficulties or anxiety about being touched. At least this was considered during the execution of Gates and Portals.

In this audience participation installation art piece, you go around most of it with your eyes closed or blindfolded, as the whole piece is a very sensory experience. This is how I knew they had uneven floors, as I tripped over the floor and stumbled down massive floor-level changes (how embarrassing).

This art piece ends with something that should be meditative and relaxing. It should be a safe space for you to reflect on the journey you have gone through and life as a whole. The blindfold is taken off.

Oh my, I cannot describe the sheer agony I felt! A final gate in the middle of the room is made up of large crystals - lit up with highly blue LED lights! Ah, this room was like a torture chamber for me and ruined my whole experience. There were no warnings before booking that there would be blue lighting at the end. There was no offer of sessions without the lights on. Abramović made no consideration for disabled people when creating her audience participation artwork. She assumed that all of her audience would be like her. It is almost as if it doesn't enter many artists' and art spaces' minds that disabled people want to access Fine Art.

I should take a step back and explain why my sensory processing difficulties made Gates and Portals painful. One of my sensory processing difficulties is with light. I usually can copy with 2,000 - 3,500 degrees Kalvin; anything past this is too "blue" for me. Sunlight at noon is often about 5000 degrees Kalvin to give you an idea of how often I struggle with light sensitivity.

Black dots appear in front of my eyes, my brain feels like it's being sawn in half, and I feel sick. I have a light sunglasses tint on my everyday glasses, then some extra dark yellow sunglasses for really "bad days". This can help to reduce the pain levels I experience; however, sometimes, it is not enough, and I need to get away to a dark room to recover. Going from a blindfold straight to a massive bright blue LED-lit gate was too much.

Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

The Fine Art world has got a problem

The example I just wrote about is sadly not limited to just that one art gallery. I have experienced similar issues in every art gallery or space I have entered. It is almost as if the Fine Art world has an unspoken problem with Ableism.

But this is just the galleries and spaces, right? Academia is more open and more able to adapt. My recent experience shows they make even fewer accessibility attempts than the art spaces.

But earlier, I said two tutors were putting in the effort, so why am I saying academia is Ableist? Indeed, the two tutors gave me hope that I could get through the degree despite the daily pain levels I had to endure. Unfortunately, a new module was about to begin with a new tutor. This one ruined everything.

So, what is Ableism?

Ableism is when a person, group, or organisation deems a non-disabled person to be of higher social worth or possess better skills than a disabled person or group based entirely on appearance, diagnosis or reasonable adjustments needed.

Some examples of Ableism are:

  • "You don't look disabled" and thinking that is a compliment towards the disabled person.

  • Saying that disabled people are "an inspiration" for having a job.

  • Assuming that the disabled person cannot do a task because of laziness rather than because they cannot do the task or they need a reasonable adjustment to do the task.

  • Being aware of the disabled person's reasonable adjustments and then ignoring or not meeting them.

  • Open abuse, bullying or harassment towards the disabled person or group.

  • Lack of accessibility options to meet the disabled person or group's reasonable adjustments.

  • Medical bias. This is when medical professionals presume that a disabled person must have a lower quality of life and that a non-disabled life is more worthwhile.

  • Eugenics is when people, groups or organisations implement policies, procedures or activities to "cleanse the human gene pool". This includes pre-natal screenings, sterilisation programs, genetic engineering and mass destruction/death of a group of disabled people.

Ableism can mean slightly different things to different people. However, this is my definition and the one I am using for this example of Ableism in academia. I invite you to write your definition of Ableism in the comments section below.

Photo by Melani Sosa

Making something out of a few cracked eggs

In 2022 at university, I was starting a new Fine Art module with a new tutor. She was given my support plan and responded positively via email that she would talk to me about my needs as a disabled student. At this point, things seemed to be going well. The staff seemed to be trying, which is all I can ask. I don't expect the world to be Autism and Dyslexia experts.

Wednesday arrived. The tutor for that lesson didn’t discuss anything with me about support. She proceeded with the lesson. I thought I would give her a chance; I know tutors are busy, so perhaps she would ask me mid-lesson

The first open-ended question was asked. Part of my language processing difficulties includes misunderstanding these types of questions. I need just a little bit more clarification or guidance than other people to be able to answer it. The tutor did at least agree to talk to me in the corridor where it was quieter, which helped me to process language. Being away from a source of pain (noise) enabled me to process words better. There was still no discussion about my support, which I found strange.

After this, she continued with the lesson. By this point, it was dawning on me that she had no intentions of discussing my needs and had not taken the ance from Learning Support seriously as the following happened.

Four or five open-ended questions were asked within the classroom, and high noise levels. We were told we had to work in groups. She then sat with me to make a small group with some other students. However, everyone in the room was then talking at the same time. This isn't what I thought university seminars would be like. I thought it would be more structured, and people would take turns speaking. The tutor then started asking me the open-ended question within this utter chaos.

My brain froze. I was in agony. The noise was so loud. The lights in the classroom were blue and glaring. I was struggling to hear the tutor. I was struggling to process what had been said. My brain was empty. I tried with all my might to try and think, but the tutor just asked the same question again.

At this point, I put my hand up in a stop motion and took myself out of the classroom.

I was struggling to speak. I was struggling to process. I was shocked that the tutor

could regard my needs as an Autistic person so flippantly. This is Ableism.

The tutor had assumed that because I could speak earlier outside in a less sensory-invasive environment, my needs could not be what Learning Support said it was. I must be “faking it”. She seemed to think that because she could talk in a noisy environment, that, therefore, I must be able to do it because I am an adult. This is Ableism.

Whatever my age is, it isn’t going to change my neurology. I took myself out of an environment that was both painful and upsetting due to the tutor’s attitude towards my disabilities.

This tutor then decided to take it upon herself to draw attention to it and to try and

talk to me – during a meltdown. I managed to bumble out something like, “Please

leave me alone.” Which I assume for some reason only known to her she took

personal offence to. But when you are Autistic and having a meltdown, the last thing you need is someone talking to you.

Because the tutor drew attention to it, other students started to leave the class to check on me. This only prolonged my meltdown because I was forced to try and speak during a meltdown by students. I had become a freakshow side attraction.

By this point, I had reached an Autistic shutdown. This is when you physically cannot speak anymore. I waited for the class to finish to avoid distracting their learning. Once they had all gone, I went into the classroom to get my things quietly but quickly.

The tutor then proceeded to only then, finally, ask me what my needs were. This was

too late. I was in an Autistic shutdown. I was physically not able to answer her. So, I

again put my hand up in a stop motion, got my things and left the classroom.

The whole thing had been a shock to me. I did try to raise a complaint about this, which, at first, was not taken seriously. It left me feeling like disabled artists do not fit in with the Fine Art world. In fact, if you look at Fine Art history, you can find examples of disabled people being taken advantage of in "the name of art", such as Théodore Géricault's Portraits of the Insane.

I left the university and was again thrown back into the same situation I was in at 19. No idea how to achieve my dreams when the community I wanted to be a part of was so closed-minded.

It has taken some time for me to reflect on what that tutor did, and longer still for the university to acknowledge their lack of support for disabled students. For legal reasons, I cannot share which university this was; however, I would urge anyone working at a university to read opinion pieces like mine. Look at your processes and protocols for disabled students and ask them if they feel supported. I can almost guarantee that many students will have experienced Ableism from your colleagues but have been too scared to report it to you as they don't want to be alienated.

What about the wider artistic community?

Attitudes towards disability can and will vary depending on who you talk to in the artistic community. However, there tends to be a community assumption that we are all "open-minded" and accepting of differences. I have found this is often not the case.

There tends to be an attitude that disabled artists need art therapy and cannot be professional artists themselves. If we are professional artists, it is assumed by many that we have no needs at all and "want an excuse to get ahead". When I began writing this, I even had an artist tell me that I should "just let the art speak for itself", never ask for adjustments and "get on with it". These comments are Ableist and assume that disabled artists are just moaners.

Instead of accepting that the Fine Art world has some serious relationship issues with the disabled community, we should all be working together to empower one another. Projects such as Wishbone Words are a fantastic example of this. Wishbone Words is a digital magazine for disabled and chronically ill people to share their creative works of writing, photography and art. Projects like this exist for us because it is well-known (albeit unspoken) that disabled people are not given creative platforms. I, for one, hope we can all change that within my lifetime.


What is the impact of Ableism?

Ableism has a massive impact on the lives of disabled people. I have had some life-changing situations happen, all because of it.

Ableism affects:

  • access to transport, education, medical care and the internet.

  • the number of unemployed, disabled people in the UK.

  • poverty levels. We are more likely to be living in poverty if we are disabled.

  • increases the amount of abuse, bullying and harassment disabled people are exposed to.

  • the mental well-being of disabled people because of exposure to repeated trauma.

  • the number of disabled people institutionalised or wrongly detained due to their disability.

There will be many more things that Ableism affects; honestly, you could write a book on that alone.

How can you or your organisation help?

  • Provide training about disability. What it means, and how it affects people?

  • Learn what Ableism is and the ways it affects disabled people.

  • Learn about disability rights and activism.

  • Challenge myths and misconceptions.

  • Report and challenge any open abuse, bullying or harassment towards a disabled person or group.

  • Provide platforms for disabled people to self-advocate and express their experiences.

  • Become a disability ally by advocating for better policies and accessibility at your organisation or place of work.

This is an opinion piece based on my academic experiences, visiting art spaces and operating as a professional artist in the Fine Art sector.